For those who are interested in knowing the science behind being a true natural bodybuilder, read on. This article will take a scientific approach at correlating strong evidence, whereby a gold criterion-based standard will be presented to put any current or aspiring bodybuilder to the ultimate drug-using identification test.
Basically, there is a physiological upper limit as to how much muscle a human at a certain height can accumulate without drugs of any kind (e.g. steroids, growth-hormone, pro-hormones, etc.) (Kouri et al., 1995). Amazingly, what we will soon discover is that there is a subjective-objective way to determine what makes a bodybuilder a natural and ultimately, remain aesthetic.
Aesthetic, for the intensive purposes of this article, will be defined as being proportionate, symmetrical and having good balance among muscle groups (Hansen, 2005). The problem with this definition is that it has no numbers to provide a standard or clear picture.
While there are many standards for bodybuilding, there are two sources of which I find to be of most applicability to natural bodybuilding. They are John Hansen's (2005) book Natural Bodybuilding and David Willoughby's (1970) book Super Athletes. Mr. Hansen (2005) provides what muscle girth measurements should be and Mr. Willoughby (1970) provides the same based on many of the pre-steroid era bodybuilding champions from back in the day.
The Fat-Free Mass Index
The gold criterion-based standard for identifying naturals is the fat-free mass index (FFMI) (Kouri et al., 1995). This has been used in other research studies and norms even exist for age groups (Kyle et al., 2003; Schutz et al., 2002). However, our particular interest is only in bodybuilders.
Well to my surprise, but fascination, there is such a study that established a gold criterion-based standard to screen for drug-use among bodybuilders (Kouri et al., 1995). It is also of no surprise that the data used to tabulate the FFMI was derived partly from the same pre-steroid bodybuilders from Willoughby's (1970) tabulation.
Data was taken from 84 users and 74 non-users first, then all the Mr. America winners from 1939-1959 were added to this analysis (Kouri et al., 1995). What was concluded was that an upper limit of 25 was set for nonusers (Kouri et al., 1995). However, it should be noted that a few of the Mr. America's exceeded this value, while the highest FFMI value was 28, the average was ~25 (Kouri et al., 1995).
It was suggested that genetics and potential margin of error with true body fat percentage may have contributed to the values greater than 25 (Kouri et al., 1995). However, based on the data, it can be said that anyone with a FFMI over 25 is genetically-gifted and is at the cream of the crop in natural bodybuilding.
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It could be possible to get to a FFMI of 30 as a natural; however, this very small population of individuals would likely represent, as said earlier, the cream of the crop. For most, the upper limit of 25 is the standard. Therefore, if one exceeds a FFMI of 30, one would need to be very skeptical of this person's claim of being a natural.
Lastly, it should be known that the max FFMI values are based on bodybuilders in contest condition (e.g. 3-5% body fat), and for overweight and fatter individuals, the formula loses validity (Kouri et al., 1995). This formula is based on being as ripped as possible and as big as possible at the same time.
The gold criterion-based standard is presented below. Remember, for this equation to work, percent body fat, height and weight need to be as accurate as possible.
Norms for FFMI in Men:
16-17 = Well below average (< / - 20th percentile)
18-19 = Average (25-50th percentile)
20 = Above Average (50-75th percentile)
21 = Well above average (75-90th percentile)
22 = Excellent (95th percentile)
23-25 = Superior [Off the charts for normal adult men (Schutz et al., 2002), but in the top 85-95th percentile for Natural bodybuilders (Kouri et al., 1995)]
26-27 = Some Natural bodybuilders could get to this level (Genetics play a large role in attaining this level).
28-29 = It is possible but very unlikely to reach this level Naturally as research and science have clearly shown NO non-users have ever gotten higher than 28.
30 or above = We know this person is not a Natural bodybuilder through common-sense, but now science too (Kouri et al., 1995).
For me, I always liked the 1970's bodybuilders more than today's bodybuilders. For example, some of my favorites were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane. What is interesting is that my initial beliefs of the natural aesthetic look of the body were confirmed by this great new screening tool (FFMI).
When I entered Frank Zane's contest weight, at 5'9" and 180 lbs, his FFMI was ~25.3! For Arnold Schwarzenegger, at 6'2" and 235 lbs, his FFMI was ~28.7! When I entered both of the last 2 Olympia winners of 2006 and 2007, both FFMI's were far greater than 30. What's ironic is that both Arnold and Frank were my favorites because of their aesthetic look.
So as was mentioned earlier, we now have an objective numerical value that confirms subjective-perception. In a nutshell, FFMI values greater than 30 begin to confirm subjective-perception by losing aesthetic appeal and a natural look.
In a previous article Back Inscription Training: Building Your Own Roadmap, I alluded to this conceptual view:
"The bloated and distended abdomens do not appeal and this is not a truly proportionate V-taper. Thus, the most important component to a V-taper is the waist!!!
So my advice to those of you wanting the V-taper that resembles those of "The Golden Age of Bodybuilding," staying natural is the way to go! Your waist will remain "natural-looking" and your internal organs will not "un-naturally" grow from aid of certain pharmaceuticals.
If you don't want to take my word for it, just listen to the radio podcast interview with Franco Columbo. In this interview, Franco mentions the fact that physiques are not as aesthetic and proportionate as they were back then. Well maybe this is because Dr. Columbo has not made any stops at some natural bodybuilding contests. These proportionate and aesthetic physiques are still out there!!!"
The 2 major flaws with current drug-testing are as follows:
- People can learn to lie and pass a polygraph test.
- There are so many drugs out there and countering-drugs to blind there existence in the body during drug-testing, that even urinalysis and blood testing can turn out normal in drug-using bodybuilders.
However, although the findings from this study were preliminary (Kouri et al., 1995), the FFMI could be a successful tool in conjunction with polygraph and drug-testing. In other words, to be a natural bodybuilder, one would need to pass all 3 tests (polygraph, drug test, FFMI test).
Although it is very possible that even with all 3 tests, a drug-user could still pass; at least their FFMI would level the playing field to the point where a drug-user could be defeated by a natural at a bodybuilding contest. In fact, I've heard of this and that it has happened on several occasions, where a natural competed in a non-tested show!
The bottomline is that with the FFMI, despite one's status of being natural or non-natural, we now would have a level playing field. At this juncture, muscle mass is matched and the other aspects of bodybuilding such as symmetry, proportionality and stage presence are equally applied to the judging process (Gaines, 2001).
In fact, research has shown that the major and ONLY difference between users and nonusers is MUSCLE MASS (D'Antona et al., 2006). So the question is naturally posed (no pun intended) - Is putting oneself at risk for various health problems really worth just ONE component (muscle mass) that makes one different from a natural?
- D'Antona et al. (2006). Skeletal muscle hypertrophy and structure and function of skeletal muscle fibres in male bodybuilders, Journal of Physiology, 570 (3), 611-627.
- Gaines, RP. (2001). Comparison of anthropometric measures of competitive bodybuilders to judges' scores and a comparison of judges' scores, Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Tech University, Virginia.
- Hansen, J. (2005). Natural Bodybuilding. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
- Kouri et al. (1995). Fat-free mass index in users and nonusers of anabolic-androgenic steroids, Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 5(4), 223-228.
- Kyle et al. (2003). Body composition interpretation. Contributions of the fat-free mass index and the body fat mass index, Nutrition, 19(7-8), 597-604.
- Schutz et al. (2002). Fat-free mass index and fat mass index percentiles in Caucasians aged 18-98 y, International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 26(7), 953-960.
- Willoughby, DP. (1970). The super athletes. AS Barnes, South Brunswick, NJ.
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Copyright © Ivan Blazquez, 2007. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder and author of this publication.